Nov
23
2015
Kiz breaks through for maiden PGA Tour victory at Sea Island
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

Ever since the RBC Heritage this past April, Kevin Kisner has been one of the most consistent players on the PGA Tour. His name regularly appeared on leaderboards — he was a top-10 machine (a la Matt Kuchar in recent years) — and he started contending as much as any top pro on tour.

Over the past seven months, Kisner found himself in three playoffs — none of which he won, unfortunately — and recorded four runner-up finishes. To say he was continuously “knocking on the door” is somewhat of an understatement. But he never let the close calls and/or disappointments weigh on him. Instead, Kisner kept gaining confidence, knowing that his day would come.

And it did. At long last, Kisner, who entered the final round of the RSM Classic — the last Tour event of 2015 — with a three-shot lead, sealed the deal with an impressive runaway victory, shooting a tournament total 22-under, by six shots over Kevin Chappell.

Even though he made it look rather easy, particularly when he posted five birdies on the front nine, needing only 11 putts, Kisner battled nerves and negative thoughts on the potential of coming up short yet another week.

“That was the hardest thing I had to deal with all day,” said Kisner, referring to his emotions just prior to teeing off Sunday at Sea Island Resort’s Seaside Course. “I hadn’t been in that position with that big of a lead. I was as jumpy or ready to go today as I can recall.

“You know, only thing you can do is win or fail in that position. Hard to keep yourself off not thinking what if it doesn’t work out. So I just wanted to go out and make birdies early and try to keep playing the way I was playing.”

However, Kisner, a chatty, affable 31-year-old Aiken, South Carolina, native, didn’t let the previous close calls in recent months bring him down.

“It was all positive for me, just used them as motivation to keep working hard,” he said via text message Monday morning.

“I think all those close calls taught me to never give up and keep grinding. I kept saying, There is no lead big enough for me coming down the last hole.”

A pivotal moment on Sunday for Kisner occurred on the par-5 7th when his second shot landed in a bush in the dunes guarding the green. Instead of taking an unplayable, he opted to try to hack it out, but the ball only advanced a few feet. Then, he chipped it eight feet past the hole, but drained the putt — which turned out to be huge and allowed him to build on his momentum — to save par. He followed it with a 60-degree wedge to eight feet for birdie on the 8th hole, and then drained a 30-foot birdie putt on no. 9 to get six clear heading into the final nine.

“Those birdies on 8 and 9 pretty much calmed me down for the back nine,” he said.

From there, he cruised to the winner’s circle and broke the tournament scoring record by four shots.

As I mentioned earlier, Kisner had finished runner-up four times since mid-April, with three of those being gritty playoff losses. At the RBC Heritage, the “start” of Kisner’s hot streak, Jim Furyk had to hole birdies in the two extra holes to hold him off. Rickie Fowler battled Kisner over four playoff holes and made two birdies on the famed par-3 17th at TPC Sawgrass to beat him at the Players Championship. At the Greenbrier Classic, Kisner shot a final-round 64 to get into yet another playoff only to finish a bridesmaid once again. Most recently, Kisner shared the 54-hole lead at the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, where he placed runner-up to Russell Knox.

To Kisner’s relief, he didn’t have to worry about anyone coming close to catching him at Sea Island.

Since the Heritage, Kisner has played with more confidence than ever before. It was always just a matter of time. He never doubted himself, but instead, gained confidence with each experience.

“The (added) confidence came from the results and what I was seeing from my game,” he said. “As I got into situations on Tour where I didn’t feel comfortable early in my career, I hit poor shots, (but recently) I started to see myself hitting good shots in those situations and that built the confidence. I have always been good in pressure and that’s what I love to play for.”

Kisner started the year ranked no. 236 in the world, but has quietly moved all the way to no. 17.

“If I play the way I have since Hilton Head, I feel like a top 20 player, absolutely,” he said.

Kisner now enters the PGA Tour’s six-week “offseason” with a victory under his belt and eager to continue where he left off in the upcoming year. The win also earned him a spot in the first event on Tour in 2016 — the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Kapalua (which is a major bonus for winners as it’s basically a guaranteed paycheck while on vacation).

“I feel like it’s been a learning process,” said Kisner. “I don’t feel like I’ve ever reached my full potential and played as well as I could have until these last few months.

“You got to feel like you belong or you’ll get run over.That sense of belonging and having a chance to win changes your outlook on yourself and your game on the PGA Tour.”

Take my word on this: Keep your eye out for Kevin Kisner in the upcoming year — he’s one of the true good guys who you can’t help but root for.